Over at The Guardian, they have a wonderful collection of various writers talking about how reading Sylvia Plath affected their writing, and in one marvelous case, what knowing her meant.
I forget that Sylvia Plath died the year I was born (1963). I forget how much her work, her poetry and her one novel, The Bell Jar, opened the way for women to write about what was real for them, especially the real dark emotions that lie under the surface: rage, anger, sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, and despair.
Her poems and The Bell Jar don't contain only these emotions, they also have moments of pure beauty, and vivid imagery that pulsates with life and blood and desire. Her poems aren't polite. They ripped open the facade of being a woman in the 1950's and 1960's, with that same dissatisfaction that Betty Freidan was about to reveal in The Feminine Mystique. Plath's work burns with desire for honesty, for the truth, to say what is obvious to her, that polite society and nice women never, ever speak of. She tore the roof off of her world, opening herself up to all the feelings in her heart and soul, and she blazed a path for everyone who came after her.
Her poetry came to me when I was 18 and had just left home for the first time. Alone, it seemed, I was ready to face some of the reasons why I left home that young, and her poetry gave me the door to recognize similar feelings in me of anger, of betrayal, of loss, as well as a way to try to describe these in poems. I didn't know these could be written as poetry. That's what Sylvia gave me most of all, the realization that everything can be made into a poem, if you can find the clarity and words to show the ideas and feelings in a way that has harmony and art to it, and even beauty.
And yet she could be funny - I remember laughing out loud reading The
Bell Jar, as well as crying, and wincing at her descriptions of the
shock therapy while in the institution. She was sarcastic, and ironic, and I had the feeling reading her, that if we could have met, we might have spoken the same kind of language. She felt like a kindred spirit, albeit much cleverer, more passionate and far more open than I could ever be.
She is still an influence on me today, as I strive to be honest in my poems, to write truthfully about what I really feel and why. I am afraid of her, too, and Anne Sexton, because I admire their poetry so much, and it wasn't enough to save them from their despair, so it seems bleak and naive for me to think that art can save, and yet I do. No one ever said that being a poet was easy, and a woman poet with children has to balance motherhood with writing. Both of these women left their children eventually, both giving up to despair and committing suicide. For a long time I fought being a poet because I did not want to be like them. And of course, it's only because that darkness runs in me too, that their poetry is both pleasure and dangerous for me. I have had to find my own strength against that darkness, and I write about that too sometimes. I have often asked myself what is poetry, if it's about something that isn't beautiful? Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, are some of the poets that laid the way for women to speak the truth as poets, and as women. Most of all, I eventually realized that not all poets - or writers - are suicidal or unbalanced. Despair was something else about which they could write, but it didn't make them poets. Both their deaths are a tragic loss, and it's not why they are remembered, thankfully. It's their wonderful, deep, magical, brutal, fiery poetry that matters.
I owe a debt to Sylvia Plath, and reading the reflections of the writers and poets on The Guardian, I find I am not alone. I am discovering now that I want to go back and reread her again, to see what she has to teach me now. That's is something I love about art and poetry and literature. There are levels upon levels of meaning, depending on where you are as a reader or viewer. It's what makes a work of art become lasting in a culture, even when not recognized at first publication. The work is revealed over time by people coming to it, again and again. The song or poem or painting reveals itself over time to have brushed some deep level of meaning that ascends that time and place.
I don't know if Sylvia Plath will still be read 100 years from now, but I hope so. I think she is an essential part of a young woman's - any woman's - growth to being able to fully express herself, including all the ways that each woman feels she doesn't fit the culture around her. I of course don't know if she is timeless, or only for a certain time, though I do know that she is part of my time and my history.
Here is another Guardian Post about Sylvia, just two weeks ago, about an upcoming book about her before she met Ted Hughes - Mad Girl's Love Song by Andrew Wilson. There are links in this article to other ones from Ted Hughes sister Olwyn Hughes and the excecutor of Plath's estate , and Plath's friend Elizabeth Symonds on The Bell Jar. Apparently The Bell Jar has been re-released with a more chick-lit cover, and some are upset. While the chicklit cover belies what is in the book, I'm happy to see it is still being published.
Did you, dear Reader, discover Sylvia Plath at some point in your life? Do you still read her poems? Did she influence you in some way?